The Curious Absence of Socially Conservative Economics
By Bryan Caplan
Public intellectuals often talk about “conservative economics.” The truth, though, is that conservative economics is essentially non-existent. Academic economists range from liberal to libertarian. While Republicans are rarely libertarian, Republican economists are the exception that proves the rule.
This is a classic “dog that didn’t bark” situation. What can we learn from conservative economics’ failure to launch?
For starters, note that social conservatism is now the main source of intellectual conflict between libertarians and conservatives. The simplest explanation for the absence of socially conservative economics, then, is that economics doesn’t provide any plausible arguments in favor of social conservatism.
But the simplest explanation has an obvious problem: Rationalizing social conservatism using Econ 101 is child’s play. Just close your eyes, tap your heels three times, and say “Negative externalities.” So-called “self-regarding behavior” clearly impacts your family – yet many people fail to take the interests of their family members into account when they engage in risky behavior. Think about how many people would drastically curtail their use of alcohol, illegal drugs, and casual sex if they deeply cared about their parents’ feelings.
Also note that familial love often makes bargaining and punishment ineffective. Most people’s parents quickly forgive their kids’ broken promises – not to mention their heinous offenses. So why not use government to pick up the slack – to enforce the “family values” that the family itself is so often impotent to enforce?
Once government starts enforcing family values in the interests of intra-family harmony, it’s easy to make parallel arguments at the level of the neighborhood, the region, the state, the country, and the world. If your “self-regarding behavior” can hurt your family members, it can other hurt your neighbors, fellow citizens, and humanity itself.
This remains true, by the way, when your fellow citizens have no decent argument for their view. In economic terms, widespread distaste for, say, gay marriage can have a massive social cost even if the only negative side effect of gay marriage is strangers’ unreasoning disgust.
Normatively, of course, I am not a social conservative. But in purely economic terms, the case for socially conservative economics is surprisingly strong. The main reason I feel little need to critique economic arguments for social conservatism, in all honesty, is that almost no social conservative bothers to make the arguments. My question: Why don’t they?